Monday, April 04, 2011

Light In Dark Places

"He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see."

---The Gospel of John, Chapter 9

An inspired Father Bill Carroll shared the Lenten message with us yesterday at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio~~~

Some of you have probably heard me quote lyrics from the Indigo Girls. As you may know, the they are a duo of activist singer-songwriters who were very popular when I was in college and are still recording today. They've been especially active in movements for peace and environmental justice, women's and LGBT equality, and the rights and concerns of indigenous peoples. What is often not known is that Emily Saliers, one of the group's two members, is the daughter of Don Saliers, a United Methodist Pastor who until recently was the William R. Cannon Professor of Theology and Christian Worship at Emory University. Several years ago, Don and Emily wrote a book together on "music as a spiritual practice" and gave a joint presentation about it at the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Atlanta.

One of the songs that Emily talked about that day was "Strange Fire," which deals with some biblical themes we ignore at our peril. The part that always gets me is the following:

Mercenaries of the shrine, who are you to speak for God?
With haughty eyes and lying tongues and hands that shed innocent blood.
Who delivered you the power to interpret Calvary?
You gamble away our freedom to gain your own authority.

What an indictment this is of what passes for religion among us. It is a good reminder to all of us, lay and clergy alike, who are called to represent God in word and deed.

This points us in the direction of some rather central themes in today's Gospel. For, in the presence of Jesus, the man born blind gets more than just his sight back. He gets his life back as he begins to break free of a religious system that asks the kind of question we see the disciples asking Jesus, namely "Who sinned, Rabbi, this man or his parents that he was born blind?"

The disciples should know better. After all, they are Jews. They know the story of Job, whose false comforters gave the very same kinds of explanation they now offer for the man's blindness. They have the testimony of Job, who refuses to curse God, even as he protests his innocence and cries out for justice from the ash heaps of history. Job, who in the end is brought to silence only by the hidden Wisdom who creates the world in love--the living God whose gratuitous, beneficent goodness defies the cruel, tit-for tat logic of our religious landscape, filled as it is with harsh monuments to our fear of the stranger and desire for control.

No, in the presence of the Son of God, the man gets his dignity back and is restored to human community. No longer is he an object of pity, a beggar by the side of the road. Now he is a person who can testify on his own behalf. "Ask him," his parents tell the Pharisees, "He is of age and will speak for himself."

But let's back up a bit. The initial answer of Jesus to his disciples would be troubling, if we took it to mean that God is somehow glorified by the man's suffering. That's not what's at stake. As we'll see next week with Lazarus, illness and suffering and even death are but the occasion of the manifestation of God's glory--a glory consummated on the Cross, where Jesus casts out the prince of darkness and offers himself up for life of the world. God is glorified, not by suffering itself, but by the victory of God's mercy and love in the midst of it.

The debate that breaks out among the Pharisees is a sign of our differing reactions to the light that exposes the sin and violence at the root of the earthly city and its religions. It is the chosen sin of self-justifying ideologies that counts as true blindness for Jesus. The Pharisees find themselves divided between those who accept the works of God for what they are and those who find fault with Jesus for breaking the Sabbath.

In the end, even the man's parents are frightened by the escalating recriminations and threat of expulsion from the synagogue. When the Pharisees ask them whether this is their son and whether he was born blind, they defer to their son's own testimony, partly out of fear. In the dialogue that ensues, the Pharisees try again and again to convince the man to speak against Jesus, but he steadfastly refuses. On the basis of his own experience, he has come to trust the One who opened his eyes. "One thing I know," he says. "I was blind, but now I see. If this man were not from God he could do nothing."

The reaction of the mercenaries of the shrine is as swift as it is predictable. They drive him out. Only his expulsion can secure their righteousness, their position, and their authority.

Needless to say, we're on dangerous ground here. The Gospel of John was written in the immediate aftermath of the expulsion of the Christians from the synagogue. And its treatment of the Jews is polemical in ways that might have been understandable when Christians were a persecuted minority but have led to further persecution ever since. After the Emperor Constantine, we began control the keys to the shrine ourselves and have needed to look more and more critically at our own use of power. One of the unsought blessings of a post-Christian age may be a return to the margins, where we Christians can rediscover our true home and voice.

As we prepare for Holy Week, however, a traditional time for anti-Jewish violence among us, we ought to underscore our history of complicity in oppressive violence, especially against our Jewish brothers and sisters. Even though it is now rejected by all responsible Christian bodies, the theory of a genetic guilt on the part of the Jews persists in its ugly and deadly power, amounting as it does to an evasion of the shared responsibility of the human race for all forms of sin and violence.

A religion centered around a tortured and crucified Savior ought to be able to come to a place of honesty about that. We ought also to be able to admit the Church's role in propping up other forms of injustice. In the clear light of the Gospel, we ought to be able to see those whom we ourselves exclude and oppress. We ought also to be able to see those nearest to us in a new light. We ought to be able to see our fellow parishioners, our co-workers, our family and friends in new ways. Whom do we hold at arm's length? Whom do we avoid or ignore? From whom do we withhold the passing of the peace? We must learn to seek these people out and turn to them for justice and mercy. For our salvation is bound up with theirs.

It is by exposing the works of darkness among us that we draw closer to Jesus, the light of the world. And it is when we pretend, contrary to all experience, that we see clearly or completely, that we risk staying in darkness and finding ourselves judged accordingly.

We are called to something better, brothers and sisters.

For once we walked in darkness, but now we are light in the Lord.

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